Conquer the communication challenges caused by masks

Anél Jacobs
Our face-to-face communication is severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Social distancing and face masks are some of the protective measures that have been put in place to slow down the transmission of the virus. But these measures pose significant communication challenges – especially in our daily, face-to-face communication.

Many populations globally veil the face for religious or cultural reasons. In the field of medicine, doctors, nurses, technicians and therapists are accustomed to wearing masks daily. These groups have already adopted a different communication skillset to ensure effective interaction with others. But the rest of us need to adjust our current communication “toolbox” to conquer the communication challenges caused by mask-wearing and other protective measures.

The role of nonverbal communication

There have been a number of studies on the complex topic of nonverbal communication – with varying results. But most of these studies found that between 70% and 93% of all communication is nonverbal.

Two of the nonverbal communication cues that have the biggest impact on our messages, are challenged by mask-wearing:

  1. Facial expressions play a prominent role in communication. But when people wear masks, the bottom two-thirds of the face is covered – hindering our ability to see and understand one another’s expressions during conversations, thereby drastically decreasing the impact and effectiveness of our communication.
  2. Our tone, pitch, rate and volume of speech all contribute to understanding a speaker. But proper application of face masks involves covering the mouth and the nose, which supresses sound and makes it challenging to understand each other.

The communication challenges caused by mask-wearing

  • Masks muffle sound, making it more difficult to hear and understand what is being said.
  • Masks take away our ability to read lips. This has a big impact when communicating with hearing aid-assisted persons, and when communicating across different accents.
  • Masks take away our ability to see facial expressions, which help us better understand the message. Speaking with a mask can be hard for people with voice or throat problems.
  • Masks can be physically uncomfortable for people who wear hearing aids or cochlear implants.

Most of the communication studies that have been conducted during the COVID pandemic found that face masks negatively impact hearing, understanding, engagement and feelings of connection during communication. Mask-wearing was also generally found to increase anxiety and stress during communication, and to make communication fatiguing, frustrating and embarrassing – both as a speaker and listener.

How to conquer these communication challenges

  1. Always be aware and mindful that your normal way of communicating is impacted by wearing a face mask.
  2. Do not assume that your communication partner is aware that you are speaking to him/her. Make sure you have their attention by using their name, or gently touching or gesturing to them.
  3. Face the person that you are speaking to directly, and make sure nothing is blocking your view. Avoid talking as you walk away from the person and avoid turning your face in a different direction.
  4. Be mindful of the impact of distance. As the distance between two people increases, the sound level drops, and visual signals are harder to decipher. You may need to increase the volume of your voice, but without shouting. Be attentive and look out for signs that the other person may not be hearing or understanding you. Try talking a little slower, and check for understanding.
  5. Because you are losing facial expression as nonverbal communication, be aware of your body language and other nonverbal cues that you may be sending. The impact of these will be amplified by mask-wearing, as the non-masked cues will be the only ones visible to your communication partner. The recipient of your communication will, therefore, rely on these cues in interpreting your message and communication intention.
  6. If the loss of facial expression and decreased impact of tone of voice hinders the transfer of your message, focus on using other nonverbal tools such as eye expressions, brow movements, movements of the head (such as nodding in agreement), body posture and hand gestures.
  7. Reduce ambient noise, or move masked conversations to a quiet place if possible.
  8. Communicating while wearing a mask can be challenging and frustrating. Be patient and kind – with yourself and with others.

Let us focus on using these tips to conquer the communication challenges caused by mask-wearing, as we navigate our way through the pandemic.